In the robotics lab at McLane Middle School, robots whir as they go about their tasks. The students are in small clusters, talking over their next big idea.
But this classroom is more than just a high-tech diversion at a school that has had its share of boundary shifts and swings in student population. It's about getting students' minds working as precisely as the machines they're using.
McLane launched its robotics program on a trial basis last school year. Thanks to a federal grant, it's now a permanent part of the school's Tomorrow's Leaders Academy.
Known as a STEM program for its rigorous academic courses in science, technology, engineering and math, the academy prepares students for advanced placement in high schools.
At its peak, McLane had nearly 1,600 students several years ago. Then new middle schools opened nearby and enrollment dropped to 70 percent of capacity in 2006. The school, which now has 1,151 students, has gotten a C grade from the state the past four years.
"For McLane, it's less about size and more about getting back students' interest in learning and increasing their focus on the future," said Michael Wilson, the school's technology teacher and robotics instructor.
It didn't take long to pique students' curiosity. All of the robotics academy's eighth-grade spots are full.
There are only a few seats left for sixth- and seventh-graders, and school officials predict it won't be that way for long.
"There's a lot of outside interest in the program," said James Elliot, McLane's principal for the past decade.
So why pick a robotics program?
Because it allows students to not only learn about robotics technology, but also systems technologies and utilization, Wilson said. Robotics uses math applications and science concepts that can be applied to other technological disciplines, such as aeronautics, construction, manufacturing, communications and transportation.
In the classroom, students study the design, development, manufacturing and operation of robots. Along they way, they learn about the broader concepts of computer science, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and bioengineering to find better ways of living.
For students, the incentive to work with robots and enter robotics contests is good grades. Admission is competitive and space is limited.
Students' FCAT math scores must be in at least the 80th percentile. In reading, a level three or higher on the FCAT is required. After middle school, students can continue their engineering and technology studies in high school.
At the end of the past school year, when the robotics program was in its trial period, McLane's team came back with first, second and third places in different categories at the 2008 Energy Whiz Olympics in Cocoa.
This year, the students are entering a Google search contest and they took fifth place in a stock market challenge.
As for McLane's technological future, Elliot sees their business and computer applications program growing, and the possibility of a hydroponics program in addition to a robotics program.
"We're constantly undergoing renovations, like our new labs, and we are always looking for more grants," he said.
For now, Wilson wants his students to appreciate the relationship between their studies and their professional futures. By increasing their exposure to challenging technical studies, students will gain problem-solving skills that will give them an edge in the work world.
Ask student Marcus Hunger if he's sufficiently challenged, and the answer is unequivocal.
"The classes are harder, he said. "I definitely have to put in more effort."
Marcus, 13, isn't sure what he wants to do when he graduates from high school, though he's considering engineering and law enforcement.
"I know it will help me in the future and I like being here (in the program)," he said.